Former FBI General Counsel James Baker felt responsible for dragging his friend Michael Sussmann “into a maelstrom,” yet remained “100 percent confident” that Sussmann had claimed, when providing Baker the Alfa Bank “intel,” that he was not there “on behalf of any particular client.” Baker’s testimony yesterday in United States v. Sussmann proved devasting to the former Hillary Clinton campaign attorney both in substance and in circumstance.
The indictment charged Sussmann with violating Section 1001 of the federal criminal code by telling Baker he was passing on the Alfa Bank information as a concerned citizen, not on behalf of any client, when in fact Sussmann represented both the Clinton campaign and tech executive Rodney Joffe. Earlier this week, during opening arguments, Sussmann’s legal team told the jury that prosecutors would be unable to establish what Sussmann actually said to Baker and would fail to prove the alleged lie “mattered.”
Yesterday, Baker proved Sussmann’s high-powered Latham and Watkins’ attorneys wrong when the former FBI general counsel testified he was “100 percent confident” that Sussmann had denied acting “on behalf of any particular client” during their September 19, 2016 meeting. “My memory on this point, sitting here today, is clear,” Baker told the jury.
Sussmann made the comments “pretty close to the beginning of the meeting,” Baker explained, noting it was “part of his introduction to the meeting.” Sussmann would go on to provide Baker with two thumb drives and several whitepapers, which Baker said Sussmann explained concerned “an apparent surreptitious communications channel between Alfa-Bank, which he described as being connected to the Kremlin in Russia, and some part of the Trump Organization in the U.S.”
Besides attesting to his 100 percent confidence level in what Sussmann had said, Baker explained to the jury his apparent earlier equivocation about Sussmann’s representations. When asked by lead prosecutor Andrew DeFilippis about his congressional testimony in which he appeared not to remember Sussmann’s statements, Baker told the jury he had not prepared for questions about his meeting with Sussmann and had not refreshed his memory at the time.
The transcript of his House testimony confirms that the congressional hearing’s focus concerned the Christopher Steele dossier and not Sussmann or the Alfa Bank hoax. Baker’s full testimony reveals he was a witness caught off-guard by a topic and attempting to recall the events while being peppered with questions.
Baker further testified on Thursday that “it wasn’t until Durham’s investigators began ‘homing in’ on meeting with Sussmann in June 2020 that he thought in detail about what Sussmann said about not having a client.”
A jury is likely to find Baker’s explanation believable given Baker’s belated discovery of a text message Sussmann sent to Baker the night before the September 19, 2016 meeting. “I’m coming on my own – not on behalf of a client or company. [W]ant to help the Bureau,” the text from Sussmann to Baker read.
Baker’s Thursday testimony also helped seal a second substantive point being challenged by Sussmann’s defense: the government’s claim that Sussmann’s alleged lie “mattered.”
As a matter of law, a lie must “matter,” or in legalese be “material,” for it to constitute a Section 1001 offense. To be material, the lie must be “capable of influencing a decision” of the government actor. While Sussmann’s legal team has told the jury that Sussmann’s alleged statement did not matter even if false, in his testimony yesterday, Baker explained several ways in which the lie “influenced a decision” of the FBI.
First, Baker testified that he would not have taken the private meeting with Sussmann if he knew Sussmann was working on behalf of the Clinton team. Next, Baker explained he had “vouched” for Sussmann, telling top FBI counterintelligence agents that Sussmann was a serious lawyer “who could understand the importance and validity of the information,” based on his belief that Sussmann was acting as a concerned citizen. The former FBI general counsel further explained that because Sussmann had brought the information to him supposedly on his own behalf, he treated Sussmann as a sensitive confidential human source and protected his identity from other agents investigating the data.
On cross-examination, Sussmann’s legal team challenged Baker’s testimony and attacked his memory. But the defense is unlikely to leave a mark on Baker’s credibility, and not merely because of Baker’s 100 percent confidence in the substance of his testimony. Rather, it is the circumstances under which Baker testified that render him untouchable.
Baker testified that he considered Sussmann both a friend and a colleague. When asked why he had not previously provided the special counsel with the damning text Sussmann sent him the evening before their September 19, 2016 meeting, Baker told the prosecutor (and the jury):
“I’m not out to get Michael. This is not my investigation. This is your investigation. If you ask me a question, I answer it. You asked me to look for something, I go look for it. To the best of my recollection, nobody had asked me to go look for this material. I had not recalled that he had texted me until I saw this text in March.”
Baker’s answer conveyed to the jury much more than an explanation for why he had only recently provided prosecutors with the Sussmann text: His response told the jury he is a reluctant witness, and that reality is much more damaging to the defense than Baker’s assertion of 100 percent confidence in his memory.
The jury is unlikely to forget that point because, in one of the few unforced errors coming from Sussmann’s legal team, defense attorney Sean Berkowitz made the mistake of highlighting the fact that Baker is a reluctant witness testifying against his friend.
In cross-examining Baker, who had earlier told the jury that testifying before Congress “was terrible” and “sucked at multiple levels,” Berkowitz asked Baker whether testifying against his friend Sussmann was also a “terrible” experience.
“This is more orderly,” Baker replied, reportedly pointing to his chair, “It’s terrible, but orderly.”
Sussmann’s legal team is unlikely to repeat that mistake today when it finishes its cross-examination of Baker, but the jury is also unlikely to forget Baker’s words—and the special counsel is unlikely to let them.